I’m trying to refine an idea. There seems to be no better place for that than here. Interested in your thoughts.
Computer pioneer Alan Turing, in a 1950 paper, described a thought experiment. It was a test to determine whether machines could “think.” His standard for machine intelligence was simple – could the device interact in ways which a human could not identify as artificial? In other words, could the machine fool a person? The Turing Test became our popular standard for judging progress toward artificial intelligence.
Movies and books have been filled with stories in which our robots climb ever closer to acquiring human qualities and capabilities. However, seventy years after Turing’s paper, we are beginning to reevaluate this standard in ways that have serious implications for politics. While it’s true that we’ve built machines that take on more and more capabilities we once thought uniquely human, the real power in this technology may lie on front we’ve largely ignored. Fantasies about computers taking on human qualities may have been based on a misunderstanding. If we face a threat from the rise of artificial intelligence, it isn’t because our machines become more like us, it’s because our machines create a world in which our unique qualities, capabilities and habits become superfluous. Our machines are starting to outsmart us without regard for Turing’s standard.
We have reached an era in which our computers have begun to compose their own code. As we observe the behavior we have unleashed we notice some interesting patterns. A silicon world of pure math and chemistry seems to be better adapted to model nature than we are. We have built machines that can write news stories, beat us at complex human games, even write somewhat credible erotic fiction, but these Turing Test-style capabilities are proving to be the least potent of their powers. The Turing Test is increasingly the carnival sideshow of computing. Computers are displaying their real power performing intelligent functions we never previously imagined and could never hope to accomplish without them. Meanwhile, cheap, clumsy Twitter bots or primitive computer malware, software that would never pass the Turing Test, can be unleashed in a way that ruins some of our most sophisticated human institutions. We are being outclassed by our machines in ways that could soon become dangerous. Our machines do not need to mimic us to out-evolve us. In fact, they may already be rendering unaided human intelligence archaic.
On the geologic timeline of the Earth, the entire span of human civilization is a fraction of an eyeblink. Across human history, as we concerned ourselves with barbarian invasions, oppressive kings, the meaning of virtue, or exploring new lands, we share with our ancestors one uniform opponent – nature itself. Nature imposes a single demand – adapt or perish. Choices we make in the very near term about the structure of our society and our response to accelerating technological advance will have enormous human impacts.
Ubiquitous, cheap computing power might usher in an age of human wealth and comfort beyond prior generations’ utopian dreams. In fact, to a certain extent it already has. However, we might also find over time that carbon-based computing power like ours becomes the loser in an evolutionary race, left behind by new evolutionary developments we unleashed and mismanaged. Which of these fates await humanity may hinge on political adaptations in this generation.
Our challenge is not Vladimir Putin or Communism or Capitalism or terrorism or crime. Survival for us depends on winning the same race won by our ancestors, a race to adapt our bodies, our cultures and our technologies to emerging demands before those demands overtake us. Progress is an existential imperative. The devil lurking in the darkness of the forests becomes the devil in an idea, or the devil in tribal dissent. The devil hiding in a forbidden story becomes the devil that looms in a printed book. In time, the devil is in a factory or a mine or a chemical. The devil is in a computer or a barcode. The faster we innovate; the more nature’s demands will accelerate. No matter what utopia or dystopia we construct, that timeless demand will be forever with us, and forever new.